Books and articles that matter
This contribution to “Reading List” is by Dean Andy Boynton
The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, by Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas (Simon & Schuster, 1986), is a lively history that tracks the role that six American statesmen and friends together played in developing this country's transformation into a global power following World War II.
The authors powerfully describe the atmosphere of trust, respect, and shared ideas in which these six intellectual giants—Dean Acheson, Charles Bohlen, Averell Harriman, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy, Jr.—forged American foreign policy. Together they developed, among other things, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and Cold War containment policy toward the Soviet Union—strategies and tactics that shaped the modern world over the course of more than a half century.
The book’s behind-the-scenes accounts of how Cold War policy was put together under extreme pressure reads like a fast-paced novel. As striking to me, however, are the leadership and team-building lessons embedded in this story, as the “wise men,” each with a considerable ego, joined forces to develop a sage American response to a political world more complex and threatening than any other previously experienced.
Here are some of my take-aways.
- The wise men’s remarkable collaboration was based on deep personal trust of each other, complete commitment and dedication to what was best for the United States—rather than political polls—and respect for each others' knowledge and expertise. These conditions allowed the six statesmen to be candid, to disagree without severing ties, to debate with an eye to the best decision (rather than maintaining continual team harmony). They disagreed often and at times contentiously, but afterward sustained their friendships with social visits that included their spouses, dinners, drinks, and good-natured banter.
- Ideas were the currency of their realm. Well-thought-out and precisely written letters and memos were a frequent form of communication prior to meetings and conversation. These opinions were written with the intent of influencing decision making—not to fill some “CYA” void or to make bureaucratic noise, as in the e-mails that frequently arrive in every executive’s in box, bristling with useless cc’s. The wise men delivered ideas in clear, precise, and unambiguous form, the kind of writing that allows the reader ample opportunity for learning, reflecting, and contributing to decision making. For example, Kennan’s famous memo on the Soviet Union, later published in Foreign Affairs as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” launched the West's containment policy, and it was adopted because of its lucidity and power, not because its author was famous.
- The wise men were consummate, ambitious learners, not just interesting people, but remarkably “interested” professionals. They learned from reading broadly, but also, importantly, through on-the-ground experience around the world. The time they spent traveling, meeting with foreign leaders, inside the Soviet Union—even meeting directly with Stalin—provided raw material for vital decisions. These were no armchair theorists. They strove enlightenment through experience.
- A single dedicated, thoughtful, and “listening” leader was essential in choreographing and bringing together the collective wisdom of this extraordinarily talented group. The wise men had patrician backgrounds, having attended elite boarding schools and exclusive universities, but they had rapport with President Harry Truman, a simple man in comparison, but focused, decisive, thoughtful, and a superb listener. He wanted the views of the experts, and he sought them out. The wise men knew they were essential because they saw that Truman made them so, and they rose to the challenge.
There is much to learn and reflect upon here. This book not only brings history to life, it brings it home to those of us trying to help our institutions achieve greatness.
Andy Boynton is the dean of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He is author of the chapter entitled “Equipping Students to Excel,” in the just-published Business School Management (Inside the Minds) (Aspadore, 2008).